The final answer was a foregone conclusion, but now it’s official: ABC has been crowned primetime king for the first time in five years.
Buoyed by the phenomenal success of quizzer “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the Alphabet web will finish first this season in all key ratings categories — viewers, adults 18-49, adults 25-54, adults 18-34 (tied with Fox), teens and kids.
That’s quite a turnaround for a net that finished in third place last season in both viewers and adults 18-49 and was struggling this season before the emergence of “Millionaire” as a sweeps stunt in November and finally as a series regular in January.
“This is beyond our wildest dreams,” ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chair Stu Bloomberg said during one of several network conference calls to reporters Tuesday.
“I think it’s fantastic that ‘Millionaire’ could come on, perform as well as it did and then shine a big spotlight on all our other series.”
The season victory is the first since 1994-95 for ABC, which also becomes the first broadcast network ever to move from third to first place from one season to the next among adults 18-49 (from a 4.7 to a 5.5 rating).
While “Millionaire” was clearly the impetus for the net’s success, Bloomberg also lauded a “strong series sked augmented by ‘Drew Carey,’ ‘Dharma & Greg’ and ‘The Practice.’ ”
The Regis Philbin-hosted quizshow so dominated primetime that its three weekly segs rank as the three most-watched series of the season, led by Sunday’s edition.
“Millionaire” knocked “ER” out of the end-of-season top spot. It’s the first year since 1994-95 that an NBC Thursday night skein has not led among all series.
It’s also the first time since 1984-85 (“Dynasty”) that ABC has had the No. 1 program in homes and the first time since 1978-79 (“Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company” and “Happy Days”) that it’s had the top three.
Moreover, “Millionaire” was the key reason that the six broadcast nets were able to add viewers compared with the previous year — for the first time in six years.
With ABC leading the way among the major nets with a 20% gain in viewership (from 11.7 million to 14.2 million), and netlet UPN surging by 36%, total weekly viewership inched up to 55.5 million from 55.3 million in 1998-99.
The Alphabet also finished the season with a higher household number (9.3 rating/15 share) than the previous season’s winner (CBS, 9.0/15) — something that hasn’t happened since 1992.
As a matter of fact, in recent seasons the top-rated net has finished off worse than the third-ranked outlet the year before.
Weak nights pump up
Other ABC highlights included viewership gains on what have traditionally been its weakest nights — up 89% on Thursday, 25% on Saturday and 28% on Sunday. The net also placed eight series among the top 20 in adults 18-49 and scored the No. 1 show among men 18-49 (“Monday Night Football”).
The Alphabet also aired the two most-watched primetime telecasts of the season in “Super Bowl XXXIV” (88.5 million viewers) and the Academy Awards (46.3 million). Throw “Millionaire” into the mix, and the net had eight of the season’s top 11 telecasts.
Although it was clearly the year of ABC and “Millionaire,” the other nets could still point to some successes of their own.
CBS’ Leslie Moonves, whose net will edge out NBC for second place among total viewers, talked up the Eye’s “core series strength.” This season the net placed primetime’s two most-watched newsmags (“60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II”) and the No. 1 new drama with viewers, “Judging Amy,” which according to the Eye topper “is clearly a show on the rise.”
CBS also aired the three most-watched miniseries of the season (“Jesus,” “Sally Hemings” and “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town”) and the two highest-rated telepics in “One Special Night” and “Beyond the Prairie: The Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
Still, the Eye saw declines in all of the major measurements. Through 35 weeks, CBS has averaged 12.4 million pairs of eyes — down from 13 million last year. And in adults 18-49, CBS pulled a 3.7 rating, down from 3.9.
Still a must see
NBC, which owned young adults during the second half of the last decade, this season slipped to second behind ABC in adults 18-49 (5.0 rating, down from 5.4 last year).
The network also slipped to third place with viewers, dropping to 12.3 million viewers from 12.7 million.
Nonetheless, the Peacock could still lay claim to the three most dominant scripted series in primetime. “ER” (12.0/32), “Friends” (10.6/31) and “Frasier” (9.5/24) were the top shows in adults 18-49, anchoring what continues to be TV’s strongest night.
“These series are a testament to network television, the power of what these series can do,” said NBC West Coast prexy Scott Sassa.
Sassa also pointed to the net’s success this season with three rookie dramas (“The West Wing,” “Third Watch” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”) and noted that “Dateline” is the top-ranked newsmag in young adults.
Fox had a more difficult year, ending up in third place among adults 18-49 with a 4.2 rating (down from 5.0). The network also experienced declines in total viewers, attracting 9 million heads (down from 10.6 million).
Still, Fox will finish first with men 18-34 and is in a virtual tie with ABC among adults 18-34. Rookie laffer “Malcolm in the Middle” led the way, finishing as the top new entertainment series among adults 18-49, while vet “The Simpsons” was up vs. a year ago in all key demos.
UPN up, WB wobbly
As for the weblets, the well-chronicled reversal of fortunes for UPN and the WB played out for most of the season. Pumped up by wrestling, UPN posted huge gains this season, up 67% in viewers and 78% in adults 18-49, while the WB slipped by 22% and 17%, respectively.
The testosterone-heavy UPN also made some strides with women this season, improving by 50% with females 18-49 versus a year ago.
UPN’s “WWF Smackdown” finished third among all primetime programs in male teens while the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek” ranked third among female teens.
(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian contributed to this story.)